From the book by Waris Dirie and Cathleen Miller
She was a child of the desert, as tenacious and beautiful as the
flowers that bloom there after a rain. She lived through heat and
drought and deprivation, but her most horrific test came in a brutal
rite of passage.
Now Waris Dirie, one of the fashion world's most stunning women,
details her remarkable life--from a goatherd's hut in Somalia to the
pages of Vogue. In revealing her painful, intimate secret, this
courageous woman hopes to help put an end to a tradition that has
mutilated too many innocents for too many years.
My family was a tribe of herdsmen in the Somalian
desert. And as a child, the experience nature's sights, sounds and
smells was pure joy. We watched lions baking in the sun. We ran with
giraffes, zebras and foxes. We chased hyraxes -- rabbit-size animals
-- through the sand. I was so happy.
Gradually the happy
times disappeared. Life became harder. By five I knew what it was to
be an African woman, to live with terrible suffering in a passive,
Women are the backbone of Africa; they do most of
the work. Yet women are powerless to make decisions. They have no
say, sometimes not even in whom they will marry.
By the time I was
around 13, I'd had my fill of these traditions. A little girl no
more, I was fast and incredibly fit. Before, I had no choice but to
suffer. Now I was determined that I would run away.
I kept running until the sun set, and the
night was so black I couldn't see. By this time I was
starving and my feet were bleeding. I sat down
to rest and fell asleep under a tree.
In the morning
I opened my eyes to the burning sun. I got up and
continued to run. And so it went for days--days marked
by hunger, thirst, fear and pan. When it grew too dark
to see, I would stop. At midday I'd sit under a tree
and take a siesta.
It was during one of these naps
that a slight sound woke me. I opened my eyes and was
staring into the face of a lion. I tried to stand but
I hadn't eaten for days, so my weak legs wobbled and
folded beneath me. I slumped back against the tree
that had sheltered me. My long journey across the
desert had come to an end. I was unafraid, ready to
"Come and get me," I said to the
lion. "I'm ready."
The big cat stared at
me, and my eyes locked on his. He licked his lips and
paced back and forth in front of me, elegantly,
sensuously. He could crush me in an instant.
realized the lion was not going to kill me, I knew God
had something else planned, some reason to keep me
alive. "What is it?" I asked as I struggled
to my feet. "Direct me."
Child of the Desert
Before I ran away from home, my life had been
built around nature and family. Like most Somalis, we
lived a pastoral life, raising cattle, sheep and
goats. On a daily level, our camels kept us alive,
since the females gave milk to nourish us and quench
our thirst, an enormous asset when we were far from
water. For everyday sustenance, we had camel's milk
for breakfast and again for supper.
In the morning we got up with the sun. Our first
chore was to head out to the pens and milk the herds.
Wherever we went, we cut saplings to make pens for the
animals, to keep them from straying at night.
We raised animals primarily for their milk and for
trade. While still a little girl, I was responsible
for taking herds of about 60 to 70 sheep and goats
into the desert to graze. I would take my long stick
and head off alone with my herd, singing my little
song to guide them.
No one owns the grazing land in Somalia, so it was
up to me to discover areas with lots of plants. While
the animals grazed, I watched for predators. The
hyenas would sneak up and snatch a lamb or kid that
had wandered off. There were also lions to worry
about. They hunted in prides, but there was only one
Like the rest of my family, I have no idea how old
I am; I can only guess. We lived by the seasons and
the sun, planning our moves around our need for rain,
planning our day around the daylight available.
Our home was a tent-like domed hut from grass and
built on a framework of sticks; it was about two
metres in diameter. When it came time to move, we
dismantled the hut and tied it to the backs of our
camels. Then when we found a spot with water and
foliage, we'd set up again.
The hut provided shelter from the midday sun and
storage space for fresh milk. At night we children
slept outside under the stars, cuddled together on a
mat. My father slept off to one side, our guardian.
Papa was very handsome, about six feet tall, slim
and lighter skinned than Mama. My mother was
beautiful. Her face was like a Modigliani sculpture
and her skin was dark and smooth, as if perfectly
chiselled from black marble.
Her demeanour was very calm, very quiet. But when
she started talking, she was hysterically funny,
telling jokes and saying silly little things to make
She grew up in Mogadishu, where her family had
money and power. My father, on the other hand, had
always roamed the desert. When he asked permission to
marry my mother, my grandmother said, "Absolutely
no." However, when Mama was about 16, she ran
away and married Papa anyway.
My mother affectionately called me Avdohol, her
word for "small mouth." But she named me
Waris, the word we used for the desert flower. In my
country, sometimes it doesn't rain for months. Few
living things can survive. But finally the water pours
down and the brilliant yellow-orange blooms of the
desert flower appear, a miracle of nature.
Becoming a Woman
In a nomadic culture
like the one I was raised in, there is no place for an
unmarried woman, so mothers feel it's their
duty to ensure their daughters have the best possible
opportunity to get a husband.
And since the prevailing wisdom in Somalia is that
there are bad things between a girl's legs, a woman is
considered dirty, oversexed and unmarriageable unless
those parts -- the clitoris, the labia minora and most
of the labia majora -- are removed. Then the wound is
stitched shut, leaving only a small opening and a scar
where the genitals have been -- a practise called
Paying the gypsy woman for this circumcision is one
of the greatest expenses a household will undergo, but
it is considered a good investment. Without it the
daughter will not make it onto the marriage market.
The actual details of the ritual cutting are never
explained to the girls -- it's a mystery. You just
know that something special is going to happen when
your time comes. As a result, all young girls in
Somalia anxiously await the ceremony that will mark
their becoming a woman. Originally the process
occurred when girls reached puberty, but through time
it has been performed on younger and younger girls.
One evening when I was about five, my mother said
to me: "Your father ran into the gypsy woman. She
should be here any day now."
The night before my circumcision, the family made a
special fuss over me and I got extra food at dinner.
Mama told me not to drink too much water or milk. I
lay awake with excitement, until suddenly she was
standing over me, motioning. The sky was still dark. I
grabbed my little blanket and sleepily stumbled along
We walked into the brush. "We'll wait over
here," Mama said, and we sat on the cold ground.
The day was growing lighter; soon I heard the
click-click of the gypsy woman's sandals. Then,
without my seeing her approach, she was right beside
"Sit over there." She motioned towards a
flat rock. There was no conversation. She was strictly
Mama positioned me on the rock. She sat behind me
and pulled my head against her chest, her legs
straddling my body. I circled my arms around her
thighs. She placed a piece of root from an old tree
between my teeth.
"Bite on this."
I was frozen with fear. "This is going to
hurt!" I mumbled over the root.
Mama whispered: "Try to be a good girl, baby.
Be brave for Mama, and it'll go fast."
I peered between my legs and saw the gypsy. The old
woman looked at me sternly, a dead look in her eyes,
then foraged through an old carpetbag. She reached
inside with her long fingers and fished out a broken
razor blade. I saw dried blood on the jagged edge. She
spit on it and wiped it on her dress. My world went
dark as Mama tied a blindfold over my eyes.
The next thing I felt was my flesh being cut away.
I heard the blade sawing back and forth through my
skin. The feeling was indescribable. I didn't move,
telling myself the more I did, the longer the torture
would take. Unfortunately, my legs began to quiver and
shake uncontrollably of their own accord, and I
prayed, Please, God, let it be over quickly.
Soon it was, because I passed out.
When I woke up, my blindfold was off and I saw the
gypsy woman had piled a stack of thorns from an acacia
tree next to her. She used these to puncture holes in
my skin, then poked a strong white thread through the
holes to sew me up. My legs were completely numb, but
the pain between them was so intense that I wished I
My memory ends at that instant until I opened my
eyes and the woman was gone. My legs had been tied
together with strips of cloth, binding me from my
angles to my hips so I couldn't move. I turned my head
towards the rock; it was drenched in blood as if an
animal had been slaughtered there. Pieces of my flesh
lay on top, drying in the sun.
Waves of heat beat down on my face until my mother
and older sister, Aman, dragged me into the shade of a
bush while they finished making a shelter for me. This
was the tradition; a little hut was prepared under a
tree, where I would rest and recuperate alone for the
next few weeks.
After hours of waiting, I was dying to relieve
myself. I called my sister, who rolled me over on my
side and scooped out a little hole in the sand.
"Go ahead," she said.
The first drop stung as if my skin were being eaten
by acid. After the gypsy sewed me up, the only opening
left for urine -- and later for menstrual blood - -
was a miniscule hole the diameter of a matchstick.
As the days dragged on I lay in my hut, I became
infected and ran a high fever. I faded in and out of
consciousness. Mama brought me food and water for the
next two weeks.
Lying there alone with my legs still tied, I could
do nothing but wonder: Why? What was it all for? At
that age I didn't understand anything about sex. All I
knew was that I had been butchered with my mother's
I suffered as a result of my circumcision, but I
was lucky. Many girls die from bleeding to death,
shock, infection or tetanus. Considering the
conditions in which the procedure is performed, it's
surprising that any of us survive.
But for all the excitement and success of my new
life, I carried wounds from the old. The tiny hole the
circumciser had left me permitted urine to escape only
one drop at a time. It took me about ten minutes to
urinate. My periods were a nightmare always. I
couldn't function for several days each month; I
simply went to bed and wanted to die so the suffering
would stop. The problem reached a crisis while I was
living with my Uncle Mohammed.
Early one morning, carrying the tray from the
kitchen to the dining-room table, I had suddenly
blacked out, and the dishes crashed to the floor. When
I came to, Aunt Maruim said: "We have to take you
to the doctor. I'll make an appointment with my doctor
I didn't tell the doctor I'd been circumcised.
Since he didn't examine me, he didn't find out my
secret. "THe only thing I can give you is
birth-control pills. That will stop the pain."
I began taking the pills, but they produced drastic
changes in my body that seemed weird and unnatural.
Deciding I'd rather deal with the pain, I stopped
taking the pills. It all came right back again,
fiercer than ever. Later I visited more doctors, but
they too wanted to give me birth-control pills. I
realized I needed to do something else. I said to
Auntie, "Maybe I need to see a special kind of
She looked at me sharply. "No," she said
emphatically. "And by the way -- what do you tell
"Nothing. That I just want to stop the pain,
that's all." I knew the unspoken message of her
comment: Circumcision is our African custom -- and not
something you discuss with these white men.
I began to understand, however, that this was
exactly what I had to do -- or suffer and live like an
invalid for one third of each month.
When I went to see Dr. Michael Mcrae,* I said:
"There's something I haven't told you. I'm from
Somalia and I..I.."
He didn't even let me finish. "Go get changed.
I want to examine you." He saw the look of terror
on my face. "It's okay."
He called in his nurse to show me where to change,
how to put the gown on, and asked her if there was
someone in the hospital who could speak Somali. But
when she came back, she brought a Somali man. I
thought: Oh, here's rotten luck, to discuss this using
a Somali man to translate! How much worse could it
Dr. Macrae said: Explain to her that she's closed
up way too much -- I don't even know how she's made it
this far. We need to operate on her as soon as
I could see the Somali man was not happy. He glared
at the doctor and then said to me: "Well, if you
really want, they can open you up. BUt do you know
this is against your culture? Does your family know
you're doing this?"
"The first thing I'd do is discuss it with
I nodded. His was the response of a typical African
Over a year went by before I was able to have the
surgery. I had to overcome some practical problems and
my own last-minute doubts, but Dr. Macrae did a fine
job, I've always been grateful. He told me:
"You're not alone. Women come in with this
problem all the time. A lot of women from the Sudan,
Egypt, Somalia. Some of them are pregnant and
terrified. So, without the permission of their
husbands they come to me, and I do my best."
Within three weeks I could sit on the toilet and --
whoosh! There's no way to explain what a freedom that
After much thought, I realized I
needed to talk about my circumcision. First of all, it
bothers me deeply. Besides the health problems that I
still struggle with, I will never know the pleasures
of sex. I feel incomplete, crippled. And knowing that
there's nothing I can do to change that is the most
hopeless feeling of all.
The second reason is my hope of making people aware
that this practice still occurs today. I've got to
speak not only for me but for the millions of girls
living with it and those dying from it.
FGM is practised predominately in Africa -- in 28
countries. Now cases have been reported among girls
and women in America and Europe, where there are large
numbers of African immigrants. This practise has been
performed on as many as 130 million girls and women
worldwide. At least two million girls are at risk each
year of being the next victims -- that's 6,000 a day.
The operations are usually performed in primitive
circumstances by village women using knives, scissors,
even sharp stones. They use no anesthetic. The process
ranges in severity. The most minimal damage is cutting
away the hood of the clitoris. At the other end of the
spectrum is infibulation, which is performed on 80
percent of the women in Somalia [..]